Mathew Block, the Formula of Concord, and more on who’s using the using

“But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully.”
~ St. Paul of Tarsus (First Epistle to Timothy, 1:8)

Thanks to Mathew Block of the Canadian Lutheran and the International Lutheran Council for allowing me to publish his response to Dr. Scott Keith’s post, “Do You Really Think You Can Use God’s Law?” See below. My addendum after the jump.

(…starting in medias res…)


Tracing its origins to Melanchthon’s Loci is all well and good, but this post simply ignores what the Formula of Concord actually says on the Third Use of the Law. I do not grant that this interpretation of the Loci is necessarily accurate, but even if it were, the Loci is not a binding confession for Lutherans; the Formula of Concord is— and talk about “poisoning the well”! Writing that the Third Use of the Law first appears in an edition of the Loci which “contains many of the theological foibles for which Melanchthon is infamous” sounds like a clear attempt to undercut its theological value: “The Third Use of the Law? Oh yeah, it comes from the heterodox Melanchthon.” Even if the book were heterodox (and again, I don’t grant that out of hand), the fact that the Third Use is included in the Formula (and is thus part of the Lutheran confessions) should settle its significance as binding Lutheran doctrine.


Scott Keith writes that “You don’t use the Law, God does.” But the writers of the Formula of Concord instead explicitly write that, yes, you do use the Law. In fact, we are called to daily practice the Law.


  • “The Law has been given to people” that the regenerate might “have a sure guide, according to which they can orient and conduct their entire life” (FC Epitome 6:1).
  • “They have been redeemed by the Son of God so that they may practice the Law day and night” (FC Epitome 6:2).
  • “We unanimously believe, teach, and confess that, although Christians who believe faithfully have been truly converted to God, and have been justified are indeed freed and liberated from the curse of the law, they should daily practice the law of the Lord” (FC SD 6:4).


Who is the subject of these verbs? “They orient and conduct their life.” “They may practice the law.” “They should daily practice the Law.” The answer, of course, is “they”— regenerate Christians. In other words, regenerate Christians “use” the Law in its third sense.


It is true that, as Lutherans, we teach that this ability and desire to practice God’s law is itself a gift: the law itself “does not give the power and ability to begin or to carry out this command” but rather “the Holy Spirit, who is given and received not through the law but through the proclamation of the gospel renews the heart” (FC SD 6:11). And it is certainly true that the Holy Spirit uses the Law in its third sense to teach us to willingly follow it (SD 6:12).


But the idea that we are to imagine the Holy Spirit’s work in the Third Use of the Law as something that doesn’t involve our active participation is nonsense, according to the Confessions. “When people are born again through the Spirit of God and set free from the law (that is, liberated from its driving powers and driven by the Spirit of Christ), they live according to the unchanging will of God, as comprehended in the law, and do everything, insofar as they are reborn, from a free and merry spirit” (SD 6:17). And again: “They act in a God-pleasing way— not because of the coercion of the law but because of the renewal of the Holy Spirit— without coercion, from a willing heart, insofar as they are reborn in their inner person” (SD 6:23).


So then, the Third Use of the Law is indeed a work of the Holy Spirit; but it is a work that involves our free and willing participation, thanks to the regenerative work He has wrought in our hearts.


It is concerning that so often discussions of the Third Use of the Law seem to simply ignore what the Book of Concord actually says on the subject.

So far Block. Well said!

In his 2017 Symposia lecture at CTSFW, “Will the Real Martin Luther Please Stand Up?” Dr. David Scaer noted the irony of how the same theologians who insinuate that tertius usus legis is from “the heterodox Melanchthon” have no qualms about using lex semper accusat from the same “heterodox Melanchthon”— and that as a totalizing theological principle.

I would add that the very beginning of the Epitome of the Formula of Concord also contains very clear language on this point, which I referred to yesterday in an update to my post from January of last year, “Who uses the Law, God or Man?”:

[Update – 2/15/17] The Book of Concord

The Epitome of the Formula of Concord begins with a synopsis of the three uses of the Law, thus to summarize the status controversiae (state of the controversy) among the Lutheran theologians at that time:


Since the Law was given to men for three reasons: first, that thereby outward discipline might be maintained against wild, disobedient men [and that wild and intractable men might be restrained, as though by certain bars]; secondly, that men thereby may be led to the knowledge of their sins; thirdly, that after they are regenerate and [much of] the flesh notwithstanding cleaves to them, they might on this account have a fixed rule according to which they are to regulate and direct their whole life, a dissension has occurred between some few theologians concerning the third use of the Law, namely, whether it is to be urged or not upon regenerate Christians. The one side has said, Yea; the other, Nay.


In the bolded section, which specifically summarizes the third use of the Law, note the grammar: regenerate men [subject] regulate and direct their whole lives [predicate] according to the Law [ablative phrase].


In case you distrust the translation, here is the Latin: “… tertio, ut homines iam renati, quibus tamen omnibus multum adhuc carnis adhaeret, eam ipsam ob causam certam aliquam regulam habeant, ad quam totam suam vitam formare possint et debeant…” The subject of the subjunctive verbs possint and debeant (+ the complementary infinitive formare) is homines renati, i.e., lit. “reborn” or “regenerated” men.


Regenerate men are able and ought to conform their entire lives to the Law. According to the Formula of Concord, to which orthodox Lutherans subscribe unreservedly, Christians do in fact use the Law. The totality of what is said concerning the Law in the rest of the Formula of Concord, both in its Epitome and its Solid Declaration, is consistent with this understanding.

Block writes: “But the idea that we are to imagine the Holy Spirit’s work in the Third Use of the Law as something that doesn’t involve our active participation is nonsense, according to the Confessions.” Yes, it truly is nonsense. It also casually assumes a fairly significant premise, i.e., that God’s will is the only true cause of anything that happens. This philosophical presupposition is known as occasionalism, and while it comports with the Islamic doctrine of God, it is inimical to Christian theology proper.

No need to get bogged down in those weeds here; how about some other weeds, though?

Why Don’t Lutherans Want to be Good?

The more I encounter the intra-Lutheran meme “you don’t use the Law,” the more I begin to suspect that what the speakers (writers, posters, etc.) of this statement really mean is, “I don’t use the Law.” Which may be true, however unfortunate.

What else don’t we use? How about the Sacraments? Just as there is an article of the Formula of Concord entitled, “Of The Third Use of the Law,” there’s an article of the Augsburg Confession (and the Apology) entitled, “Of The Use of the Sacraments.” GASP! Do you really think you can use the Sacraments?? God uses the Sacraments; you don’t! The reasoning is as otiose in this latter hypothetical instance as it is in Keith’s article.

Here, as with so many contemporary Lutheran donnybrooks over the Law, sanctification, new obedience, etc., I am left wondering: why don’t Lutherans want to be good? Or, why do they want to be only putatively good? Answer: because being only putatively good but actually bad is a lot more fun, especially if you can gradually deaden your conscience into thinking (A) that this is how it has to be (thus making a curious virtue out of necessity, ironically, as well as a self-fulfilling prophecy), and (B) that you are “living out your Christian freedom” (the freedom of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” i.e., the freedom to succumb to your urges, akin to the freedom of rocks to fall when dropped. This, too, we valorize by saying that we’re “just reveling in our creatureliness,” or, “not trying to be anything more than dirt and clay,” etc.) Have you ever heard this one? “God would rather forgive your sin than have you be righteous.” I have. And, thank God, it’s wrong: God can do both; He wouldn’t “rather” do one.

If your understanding of “the simul” extends no farther than what I have described above— i.e., “all it means” is that Christians are actually bad, but regarded as good, and don’t/can’t get better— you need to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest (A) the Large Catechism, and then (B) any Luther sermon; I recommend his Trinity XVIII Gospel sermon.

You Can’t Use the Law Throw Out God’s Commandments

Contrary to what Pastor Donavan Riley might think, as Christians we are not free to “throw out any of the commandments” if they get in way of us “doing love” (whatever that means). Seriously, these people— yeah, you couldn’t possibly use God’s commandments, yet you can somehow “throw them out.” Now who’s being presumptuous? And no, I’m not putting Keith’s words in Riley’s mouth:

By their scare quotes shall ye know them.

No, Christian freedom never entails freedom to set aside God’s commands, which are not burdensome. “The freedom of the gospel is valid only in matters relating to the relationship between you and God, and not in matters between you and your neighbors,” writes Luther in his 1521 Judgment Concerning Monastic Vows. “God does not want his Law thrust aside to enable you to serve Him” (LW 44:313-314).

It seems that many of us Lutherans are directionally challenged when it comes to our relationship to the Law as regenerate Christians. We know we are not under it— this is abundantly clear from Scripture. Where, then, do we stand in relation to it? Is it under our feet? Is it far behind us? Neither one. The Law, as God’s good, gracious, and eternal will, is all around us. We Christians inhabit it. In what is, for my money, one of the most beautiful descriptions of the Christian life in the Lutheran Confessions, the Formula of Concord puts it thus:

But since believers are not completely renewed in this world, but the old Adam clings to them even to the grave, there also remains in them the struggle between the spirit and the flesh. Therefore they delight indeed in God’s Law according to the inner man, but the law in their members struggles against the law in their mind; hence they are never without the Law, and nevertheless are not under, but in the Law, and live and walk in the Law of the Lord, and yet do nothing from constraint of the Law. (FC SD VI, 18)

“…nevertheless not under, but in the Law…”/“tamen non sub lege, sed in lege”— is that not a beautiful, wonderful image? (For me, at least, there are strong shades of C. S. Lewis’s “looking along the beam,” here— if you haven’t read his short essay, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” you must.)

On the other hand, if the Law is something which is essentially accusing, enslaving, and death-bringing, being “never without the Law,” being “in the Law,” etc., all sounds very much like hell, and not at all like the beginning of eternal life. Indeed, it sounds rather like it belongs to a crass and ugly realm which we must ascend beyond through Gospel gnosis. Sorry, I meant freedom. Gospel freedom.

“How do I love Thy Law? Let me count the ways…”

“Lord, how I love your Law…because it shows me my sin.” Good. That is a very good, very Christian reason to love the Law. But must it end there? Do you love the Law for any other reason? Is that the only way you can make Psalm 119 “sound Lutheran”? If not, and if so, respectively, you have a bit of a problem.

The meta-issue, of course, is that the 1580 Book of Concord, as a rule of doctrine, is itself a kind of law. Alas, it seems only to accuse Keith (and a number of his compatriots), revealing his heterodoxy. Evidently, this is the only way God sees fit to use it. No one can argue that Keith has quite piously refused to attempt to use it as a guide. Shall this cohort be credited with an alien Lutheranism not their own? If putative Lutheranism is a thing, that would explain much about the troubles we are facing in the Missouri Synod today.

One final note:

I don’t know how the Concordia University System works, so I don’t know if it’s notable that Dr. Keith is not rostered in the LCMS. Since he is not, though, perhaps he is not obligated to subscribe to the accusing body of tyrannically norming doctrine known as the Lutheran Confessions.



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